Alex Sessa completed his PhD with the University of Southampton Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish and Non-Jewish Relations. His doctoral thesis examined memory/interpretation of the Shoah between Christian and Jewish communities with a focus on a specific case study. Dr Sessa’s research interests include Memory Studies, Interfaith Relations, and analysis of the far-right. These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wiener Holocaust Library.

The Wiener Holocaust Library’s exhibition, This Fascist Life: Radical Right Movements in Interwar Europe, is being presented at a time when fascistic elements are creeping their way into societies around the globe. This Fascist Life presents a comprehensive history of Fascist movements in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s and demonstrates the pernicious use of propaganda to marginalise minority communities (namely Jews) in the face of nationalist fervour. The exhibition compels us to remember that Fascism is not born out of a vacuum and that words, actions, policies, and ideologies can and do have very profound impacts upon minority communities around the world. Moreover, it warns us to be mindful of the fragile nature of democracy and the insidious nature of far-right movements, now more than ever.

Black and white photograph of a fascist rally in London 1934
10,000 people at a Blackshirt rally to hear Oswald Mosley speak at Olympia Stadium, London, June 1934
© Illustrated London News Ltd – Mary Evans

Often, the radical right uses coded language to mask its racist and anti-democratic sentiments. Far-right politicians and propagandists communicate craftily worded messages to disaffected voters that cast blame upon minorities and promise a return to a mythologised past. ‘Make America Great Again‘ and ‘Take Back Control of Our Borders’ are two recent examples. Given the delusive nature of this coded language, many followers fail to recognise their own racism, which makes the movement appealing.

In a growing number of western democracies, far-right groups and conservative politicians are developing an ever-growing synergetic relationship. A notable example of this occurred during the 2017 ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Between 11 and 12 August, multiple far-right groups, including neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, white nationalists, and Klansmen, amassed to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Nathan Damigo, the founder of Identity Evropa (a group that proclaims the superiority of European heritage), was invited to speak at the event. He said the rally was meant to ‘unify white nationalist factions‘, and that ‘we are not going to stop protesting the replacement of our people, our heritage, and our culture‘. On the night of 11 August, a group of white nationalists unexpectedly marched through the University of Virginia’s campus carrying tiki torches, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us‘. The following day, a 19-year-old woman was killed after a protester’s car crashed into a crowd of people. However, then U.S. President Donald Trump was reluctant to condemn the actions of white nationalists. He initially stated that there were ‘fine and decent people on both sides‘.

Alt-right members with confederate flags at a rally
Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding, Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden flags.
Wikimedia Commons

The events at Charlottesville put Trump in an awkward position. After all, his quick rise to political prominence was largely fuelled by his inflamed racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center – an American legal advocacy group specialising in civil rights – his 2016 presidential victory was a watershed moment for the far-right. During the campaign, Trump vilified Mexican migrants as ‘rapists and drug dealers’, proposed a ban on Muslims from entering the United States, and promoted a white supremacy conspiracy theory that falsely stated African Americans were responsible for 80 percent of the murders of white people. Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke endorsed Trump, stating that to vote against him would be ‘treason against your heritage‘. Trump refused to condemn the endorsement. Not since the 1968 campaign of segregationist George Wallace had the far-right movement played such a pivotal role in a presidential election. Trump’s use of inflamed rhetoric on the campaign trail was a metaphorical “wink” to the radical right that said, ‘I’m on your side’. For him, condemning antisemitism at Charlottesville meant backing down on his promise to ‘Make America Great Again‘.

This was not the only example of Trump signalling to his base. During a 2020 presidential debate, Trump gave an explicit directive to the extremist group, Proud Boys: ‘stand back and stand by!’ This came after months of warning that he could only lose the election if it were “stolen”; the group was elated to have been mentioned by Trump. On 6 January 2021, the United States Capitol was attacked by rioters intent on stopping the Electoral College vote count, which confirmed Joseph Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election. This marked the first time since 1797 that the United States did not achieve a peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. A number of Proud Boys were later charged for their role in storming the Capitol and the group spoke out against Trump for his failure to do more to protect Capitol rioters. During an interview with Christian Amanpour, Representative Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), who was the lead manager during Trump’s second impeachment, explained ‘that insurrection surrounded a coup on the inside, and that was an attempt to essentially take Joe Biden’s majority of 306 in the Electoral College and reduce it to below 270 in order to kick the contest into the House of Representatives for a so-called “contingency election” under the twelfth amendment of our Constitution.  At that point, we would have been voting not one member one vote, but one state one vote‘. In Raskin’s view, Trump was comfortable inciting a violent insurrection with the intention of remaining in office for another four years. To date, the ease with which Trump seeks to incite violence to meet his political objectives has not changed. During a recent rally in Texas he dangled pardons for those connected with the Capitol riot should he be re-elected in 2024, throwing a cloak of protection over would-be extremists. 

Rioters photographed outside the US Capitol building
Rioters outside the US Capitol building holding US flags and ‘Make America Great Again’ flags.
Wikimedia Commons

Yet, Donald Trump’s blatant disregard for democracy extends beyond his role in the Capitol riot. An ongoing investigation shows that during the 2020 election, Trump advisers drafted executive orders to seize voting machines with the intention of undermining Joe Biden’s victory. The New York Times reports that Trump was directly involved in a plot to involve federal agencies, like the Defence Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to confiscate machines with the intention of finding evidence of ‘irregularities’ in the election result. While the plan was never put into motion, its conception bears an eerie resemblance to the dictatorial actions of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Paradoxically, however, Trump proudly styles himself as America’s saviour with his ‘I alone can fix it’ persona. For disillusioned Americans who feel their country has strayed too far from traditional values, the cult of Trumpism has proven effective. The so-called identity politics that Trump heralds take a page from Fascism’s handbook. According to Jason Stanley, author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, “Fascism is a cult of the leader who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by immigrants, minorities, and leftists”. Trump’s political career has been defined by a barrage of verbal attacks against minorities, his political opponents, and a media that seeks to hold him to account. Referring to ongoing investigations against him, he portrayed himself as the primary victim of a corrupt “witch hunt” and encouraged his followers to chase away his adversaries, through violence if necessary. Without question, his tactics are explicitly fascistic in nature.   

The identity politics that Donald Trump uses as his weapon of choice are not limited to the United States. Éric Zemmour – who has been labelled France’s Trump – has similarly launched a political campaign using racially inflamed rhetoric in an appeal to disaffected voters. In particular, the far-right journalist turned presidential contender, has centred his candidacy around the concept of ‘the great replacement theory’: the idea that one’s culture is threatened by foreigners. Similar to Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again‘ slogan, Zemmour’s rhetoric evokes a mythologised past characterised by ‘traditional values’. Since the 1970s, he argues, France’s culture has been eroded by left-wing politics, feminism, and immigration. Zemmour claims, in his best-selling book, Le Suicide français (The French Suicide), that the country’s high divorce rate has made men ‘sexually desperate’, women are victims of consumerism who long to be dominated, and migrants are diluting French society. Twice convicted of hate speech, he has also branded unaccompanied child immigrants from the middle east as rapists and thieves. 

To many of Éric Zemmour’s supporters, he is less of a policymaker and more of an ‘expert’ on solving cultural issues. Recent polling places him at him at just 8 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election. Nonetheless, he appears to have made some headway with middle-class voters who are concerned about France’s future – many of whom believe their culture is “under attack” from an influx of Muslim immigrants. Zemmour promised a “reconquest” against years of social and political decline during a December 2021 rally, which saw violence erupt between Zemmour supporters and protesters. As Reuters reported, the term ‘Reconquest’ – which Zemmour has adopted as his party name – evokes historic memory of the Reconquista, wherein Christian forces expelled Muslim rulers from the Iberian Peninsula. Parallel to his American counterpart Donald Trump, Éric Zemmour’s political objective is clear: he seeks to build national fervour through racially inflamed rhetoric and cast blame upon minorities for societal grievances. So too, he credits himself as the “saviour” of ‘the French way of life’. He argues that since the fall of Napoleon, ‘France is no longer a predator, but prey‘. Therefore, in order to return the country to a state of greatness, it is necessary to divide the population into two competing factions: us vs. them. Objectively, ‘us’ (French blood) must prevail.  Such tactics are nothing short of fascistic by nature. 

A black and white photograph of students demonstrating
Students at the University of Vienna saluting in a torchlight parade together with the Rector, Hans Übersberger, in 1931.
ÖNB Bildarchiv. H 780 B

This Fascist Life is a compelling reminder of the dangers that racially charged rhetoric presents. In the case of Nazism, it resulted in a genocide that claimed the lives of six million Jews. Moreover, this exhibition reminds us that Fascist movements of interwar Europe – and the horrific effects they produced – are neither long ago nor far away. I am often reminded of my experience interviewing Dr Szusana Pajzs, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor living in Budapest. She recounted that even today, she continues to be treated as a second-class citizen in Hungary. During our conversation, Pajzs recalled seeing her father beaten in front of her; she later learned he was exterminated in a gas chamber. She uttered a grim warning I will never forget: “Second Auschwitz … I think it is possible!” Dr Pajzs’ words are a reminder that genocides do not simply arise out of thin air. Rather, they are the product of ongoing racist rhetoric and conspiracy theories that dehumanise minorities. Over time, minorities are classified as ‘others’, undesirables, and less than human. Blame for society’s hardships is placed upon them by despotic leaders who demonstrate contempt for liberal democratic principles and basic civil liberties. Given the advancing age of survivors like Szusana Pajzs, we are at risk of their stories being lost to us forever.

Alfred Josephes (standing) with his brother-in-law c. 1920s. A German Jew from Berlin, was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and murdered.
Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Moreover, antisemitism appears to be widely misunderstood, as recently evidenced by high-profile media personalities failing to recognise that race was a major component of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories have been fuelled in part by the misappropriation of Holocaust iconography. As we are collectively forgetting the lessons of Fascism’s past, fascistic movements are steadily gaining momentum in western democracies. This Fascist Life explains the history of Fascist movements in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s; it is time to heed the lessons it teaches. It is up to each of us to hold journalists, policymakers, and special interest groups to account, and to stand unified against racist and divisive rhetoric in our pursuit of an equitable, just, and democratic society.

Suggested further reading

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our Collections Catalogue: Fascism; Antisemitism; Extreme right; Great Britain.